Rethinking the Protagonist: Subaltern Narrators and Biographical Fictions
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This chapter asks what biographical fiction (‘biofiction’) can reveal about biography proper. The conceit at the heart of biofiction is that it presents the inner life of the biographical subject. Biographical novels thereby dramatise a fundamental tension in biography between verifiability and interiority (Virginia Woolf’s ‘granite and rainbow’). In a close reading of a bestselling recent biographical novel on Richard Francis Burton, Ilija Trojanow’s The Collector of Worlds, the chapter shows this tension at work. Trojanow’s novel gives a postcolonial twist to the ‘Great Man’ Burton by presenting him through the eyes of his servants in a mode of ventriloquised sousveillance (surveillance ‘from below’). The disenchanted subaltern is a crucial resource for biography: fiction imaginatively reconstructs what archives have failed to preserve. Trojanow’s subaltern narrators remind us that ‘no man is a hero to his valet de chambre’. The chapter concludes with a discussion of this aphorism, explaining its recurrence in discussions of biography since Samuel Johnson.